Thursday, March 31, 2011

Travel OK

Copying this straight from the US Embassy email I just got:
U.S. citizens should defer non-essential travel to the following regions:  Tokyo (Tokyo Capital Region), Yokohama (Kanagawa Prefecture), and the prefectures of Akita, Aomori, Chiba, Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki, Iwate, Miyagi, Nagano, Niigata, Saitama, Shizuoka, Tochigi, Yamagata, and Yamanashi.

Areas of Japan outside these above regions of concern include:  the islands of Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa, and the prefectures Aichi, Fukui, Gifu, Hiroshima, Hyogo, Ishikawa, Kyoto, Mie, Nara, Okayama, Osaka, Shiga, Shimane, Tottori, Toyama, Wakayama, and Yamaguchi on the island of Honshu.  Travelers to these prefectures should bear in mind that transit through Narita (Chiba) and Haneda (Tokyo) airports may be required.

This means many systems are go.

In the meantime, it's the last day of the official school year. The office smells strongly of bubblegum.. I think it must be cleaning products. I spend the morning booking Okinawa (dragging those participating Shiso-ites kicking and screaming into the world of planned Golden Week travel) while the tickets are still within our price range, because we've thrown around hypotheticals for at least a month, ohh, Korea? hmm.. Okinawa? The Philippines? Hmm.. But so-and-so has already been there. And someone doesn't have enough money and someone doesn't have enough vacation days, but it's important to me for us to make this trip together because it's the end of the JET year nearly, by then, but it's impossible for anyone to commit to or settle on anything. Fuck that! We're nearly out of time.
I try to look at websites about Kagoshima and fail. I will need to look at a guidebook instead. I consider ordering one on Amazon and decide to just borrow someone else's for this weekend.

I spend the morning in renraku form, playing little miss travel agent for myself and others, e-mailing and messaging in different people's various (idiotic.. no it's not her fault she can't access e-mail at work and uses facebook instead) messages. Lunch I sit and watch the sun on the river. It really is starting to feel like spring. After lunch I get back and have had enough of people who just don't listen.. and I don't mean 'people who just don't agree,' I mean who don't listen to things like facts. I tell them the time, the price. Then they ask again in another e-mail fifteen minutes later. Who can be bothered to scroll up, anyway? I have my fill of it and flee the bubblegum scented stuffy office for the flowerbeds because

I walk up that driveway every day and back down again in the afternoon to catch the bus, and there is one pansy bed among the many that is choked with weeds. The big powerful weeds wrap their coils (and roots, too) around the pitiful flowers, choking the life from them slowly...

So I grab my gloves (which VP gave to me some random day when he asked me to join him in his random job-doing around school) and go down to weeds who do not argue, and do not ask questions, and I rip them out and beat the roots against the rocks to loosen the dirt therein tangled. And the weeds resist, and the flowers do not thank me, still there's satisfaction in the sunshine of it, the dirt, and the warming wind. I think I found my new favorite spring-break-at-work sunny day pastime.

But of course, at some point I really will have to look into what I'm going to hope to do in Kagoshima this weekend. And I really shouldn't slack off on my Japanese studyin'. Maybe I'll do it on the train.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

everything's coming up emlem

Yesterday I cleaned out my cabinets. I made a stack of "archives" and bags of prizes and boxes of cards and drawers of supplies. I surveyed that stack of archives, unwilling to throw them away, but unable to find a good reason to keep them around. I mean, I'm only going to produce more lesson plans. Do I need my predecessor's? Will my successor need predecessor's stuff as well as the great supply of plans I'm going to leave behind?

Nah. But then the solution becomes easily clear when my friend since middle school and fresh-off-the-plane ALT Manderines asks if I have any extra supplies. She does battle with the culture shock et al that is the way coming to Japan is awesome and shiny for the first like 11 hours, then it sucks harder than anything for the next two weeks. I remember it, don't know why I'm surprised to hear unhappy when I lived it too. I remember going to bed at 6pm when jetlag was not really an excuse anymore, and how a knock on the door seemed to save everything. I remember choosing not to write about it in this blog because I didn't want anyone to worry. I remember having nothing, no money, no internet, no friends, no work, no life. Because it takes time to get all those things, and not having them is horrible.

Now, of course, I have too much stuff, too much I hope to accomplish, too much on the schedule, too much of everything, but that's how I like it.

There are new shiny shinkansens that go all the way to Kagoshima-Chuo from Osaka and some of them stop in Himeji. I'll be on one of those by the end of the week.

By the end of the week, Laureno will be in Takarazuka (a little over an hour, and twenty bucks by car).

Then I find out that former roommate got accepted to the Kyoto Consortium of Japanese Studies, which means he'll be two hours and twenty bucks away by bus for six weeks.

There is something very dear about old friends being close by (in the same country is close enough), and being able to share with them the things I have discovered and enjoyed so far.

So that part where I was hoping to have people around willing to travel and do stuff with me..? I'm feeling pretty good about the decision to stay a third year.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Though our dramas shrink to nothing when placed on the world stage.

It's been a whirlwind.

Yesterday was weird.

First, we had closing ceremony. There was an earthquake in the middle of it, nothing big, just little rumblings in the mountains. After ceremony, there were club activities.

Then, at noon, we had a meeting. For some reason, the meeting memos were not on my desk. I don’t know why I get all these other memos, but not the ones for this meeting, or like.. where the 3rd years all ended up going to high school. I get a lot of stuff I hardly bother to glance over, but stuff I want to see I end up leaning over to look at other people’s desks.

So I was leaning over pre-meeting to see the floor plan of the new school. Big Brother had told me that when they built the new Ichi-Kita, he and the tea lady were like separated from the rest of the staff room by some kind of partition and that for morning meetings and such, he had to crane around it to see anything. I kind of expected something like that on our new floor plan too (building to open summer 2011?).

But no, they went Kita one better. There is a plan of the staff room, with all the important desks at the front (principal, vp, head teacher, and secretary), then the desk clusters which are much smaller.. our current plan has three desk clusters of six desks each. The tea lady, nurse, ALT, etc are just kind of glommed on to different clusters. I sit with the 1st year teachers, the 2nd year has the tea lady and nurse, and the head teacher is with the 3rd year teachers. I always get put with the first year cluster (last year I was by the tea lady), so I figured that next year I might get moved over to what is currently the 3rd year, as we turn over.

But in the new school, as I mentioned, 4 smaller clusters, 4 desks each. One cluster is tea lady plus one teacher from each year, and then each cluster is a year group.

And my desk? Oh well. There’s the staff room, then there’s this hallway, then there’s a sort of meeting room with a big table, and one desk cluster. Two empty desks, the school counselor, and me.

Sabishii, naaa!

When I saw this I didn’t initially realize that I was in another room across the hall. I was looking at it as one big room where I was far away. Even then, the school counselor is rarely at our school. I don’t know her at all. Even though I am gone twice a week to elementary, this is still my base school and I’m still here 3 days a week. Most of the time, I’d be alone in that extra room.

Which isn’t the end of the world, I mean, think of all the space! I could (shouldn’t, but would) slowly spread out and use both extra desks as well as my own. I would claim as much storage space as I liked. I could work furiously on HT, blogging, and studying Japanese, et al to my lonely heart’s content. I would probably sit and work at the big table. And I would never be part of the team again.

When they got to the floor plan in the meeting, though, Mikan-sensei stood up for me. I don’t know if anyone expected me to say anything, but a few people looked at me when we turned to the plan, with expressions reading “that’s kinda effed up, isn’t it?” I understand a lot more than I can say, though, so I was so grateful it brought tears to my eyes when Mikan-sensei said “You know, it’s really lame to put her over there all by herself, when she came all the way here to be a teacher for us and she’s trying to get better at Japanese,” in polite eloquence. Have I mentioned that I <3 Mikan-sensei?

I had written a post yesterday, just giving an overview of last weekend. Not too long after writing it, and working madly on HyogoTimes (April now live) all afternoon, and formulating a real schedule for studying Japanese, I packed up my crap and headed out. But the bus roared by when I was still halfway up the path to the road. I sighed, watched the elementary kids play soccer with graduated 3rd-years (one of whom had the audacity to ask if I remembered his name—goodness, how could I have forgotten?) for a minute, then trudged back up to school to await the next bus, or someone heading home after clubs finished at like 4:30. I wanted to get back in good time so I could turn around in my car and come back up to Ichi for adult conversation class. Into the staff room again. But everyone was still there.

There was ANOTHER meeting, at 5:15. And this one was a bigger deal.

I didn’t know what was going on until it was. It was the official presentation of who is leaving, where they are going, and who is coming, and from where. I obsessed about this a lot last year, and all the ALTs were abuzz, wondering about the ways we would all swap English teachers, or not, who got to keep whom, and who was good, and who we were losing.

This year, I knew Newbie-sensei was going, she already got her info about elementary in Asago like two weeks ago. I knew that Mikan-sensei was staying. And I knew that Miss-Piggy-sensei was probably going; as a part-timer, she cleaned out her desk yesterday while I e-mailed and edited and waited for photos. I knew that Westerly-sensei was probably leaving (he’s the guy that’s a year younger than me, who arrived and occupied “that extra desk” around summertime; I like him, and we hang out sometimes). I was prepared for those things, although hearing them announced wasn’t my favorite afternoon plan. But there were some other surprises.

The VP, whom I just love, who is lenient with nenkyuu rules, who is good with the special needs kids and takes me along to English class with them, who always talks to me in English, and asks questions about stuff he hears in “video movies,” and who told me, on a New-Year’s card that I’m the “most excellent ALT [he’s] ever met” is getting promoted. He’ll be a principal at some other school. While I was still absorbing this surprise, they went on to announce that the math teacher (also a painter, and at whose home I recently sat for a portrait) was being moved to another school. Which was upsetting because I feel like we just became good. A few other teachers that I don’t ever work with but whom I like from afar, because they are solid and all the kids fear/love/respect them, are going too. I hardly heard the names of who is replacing all these people; I listened to make sure that one English teacher everyone is scared to have to work with was not among them, then I checked out into my own little emo haze about how life’s not fair.

Yep. My life is hard. Safe and sound in Shiso when one could have been anywhere, one could have been in Ishinomaki. One could have been anywhere in Tohoku, really, and have no more routine to be annoyed to disrupt..

And it’s really sad and scary, but in a much more distant way, that deaths are at 9737 with an additional 16501 missing (.. don’t look at that, even if you were able to stomach my Jermaine photos last year). But it’s different when they turn up someone just like you. Yeah, there have to be lots of people just like you among the missing, but Taylor Anderson was living a life just like mine at the same time as me. Tell me she was a JET and I can immediately know (or assume with a good deal of safety) that she taught English and didn’t teach English, that elementary kids worshipped her, that she was frustrated by the system, and loved Japan. I know nothing about her but I can see her at enkais, at hanamis, and under momiji. I can imagine her Japanese friends and her spring break plans. My reckless imagination insists that without knowing her at all, I know her quite well. And maybe that’s why this one person in ten-thousand hits me, and I’m sure all JETs, harder than numbers do. It’s quite a different thing to hear this kind of news about someone you know.

So yesterday I didn’t get home until 9:40 at night, having spent the whole day up around work. I was meccha tired. The attitude maybe has been, we do what we can, and keep doing what we can, but we keep living our lives too, which means we wish we could go to hanami, and we're going to go on spring break, and the school trip will be moved to Okinawa or Hokkaido instead of Tokyo. Because out here in unaffected Japan, we have to balance between the fact that life goes on, but not everywhere. That no one is making a big enough deal of it, but that it’s overtalked. So it's strange because life around here is about the earthquake, but it's not.. we do what we always did, out here in unaffected Japan, but we also do more than that because we have to donate and worry and hope and mourn too.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Updates from HQ

It’s been a whirlwind here at EmLem HQ; we’re pushing to publish HyogoTimez early because the designer (and probably most of the writing staff) is leaving for spring break on Friday. I’ve been attending graduations and trying to collect, digest, and disseminate information. I thought this issue of HT would be smaller than normal because we’re missing two of the regular sections, but then I somehow wrote a bunch of sections myself that I felt needed to go in and.. we’re about where we are every month I guess.

From 2011_03_19

It’s spring, officially. Sagramore came to visit and we had pretty much the coolest Shiso weekend ever. First we visited Tatsuno’s Ayabeyama plum grove collection, where we wandered through that special brand of newly-spring sunlight and an intoxicatingly plum-blossom-aroma-filled air. I bought some honey which I believed at the time (but no longer believe) to have been produced by the terrible Death Bees (susumebachi) of Japan.

Not an optical illusion. They really are that effin' big.
From 2011_03_19

From 2011_03_19

From 2011_03_19

Father Earth: Sagramore refused to let a lady carry around a new pet tree when his hands were empty.
From 2011_03_19

We then went directly to monkey park Chikusa (directly is relative.. I got lost and found again along the way), which proclaimed itself open with signs at the front, but there were no monkeys nor people to be found at the park site itself. On a whim, we (three of us now, with the addition of Chikusa’s Zed) climbed a hill toward Ruriji (the temple around which was built the monkey park), even though the path was muddy and there are still a lot of downed trees there from the typhoon rain-caused landslides almost two years ago.

Our reward was that as we pursued the dying sunlight to the top, we found where the monkeys were hiding, as well as a semi-abandoned looking temple. It was pretty freakin’ awesome. I did not have my camera in hand.

After marveling for a while, we went back for dinner at Raputa, followed by a good karaoke session in which we screamed lyrics until we could not speak anymore.

Sunday, we had brunch at Uncle Tom’s Cabin (yeah it’s really called that), a restaurant near my apartment, and then went to Takarazuka, where Sagramore was able to get tickets for seats not far from us. We saw Beauty and the Beast, which was fabulous as Takarazuka is, and the second act was a sort of musical dance and singing number which made sense in a over-the-top glitter and feathers and sparkles and colors kind of way until the unicorn bit (which I still don’t get).. even the America segment, with its cavorting and gunmanship and yee-haws was understandable! We followed the show with dinner at a classy New Zealand restaurant (where yes I did lick the plate), and I concluded along the rainswept walk that Takarazuka is a cool city, all perched there along the river tucked against the mountains, and I hope to spend more time there, especially once Laureno gets installed.

I drove home zombie-like through the rain so I could go to bed so I could get up Monday morning and go sit for my portrait..!

And that too was pretty much awesome. I’ve gotten to the point where visiting a Japanese household is not a huge cultural experience. Happily, the purpose of my visit was not Japanese Cultural Experience (some people in the past have invited me over in order to Teach Me Stuff and show me the layout of a house.. it’s not until I get into these situations that I think about the fact that I go to a Japanese home once a week for dinner and studyin’), so we didn’t waste any awkwardness with a tour or explanation of the style, displays, or whatever.

We had tea in the morning and a cookie, and chatted a bit. I hung out with his wife while he set up in the studio before 9. I use that term deliberately; in some situations I “sit with” someone’s wife as we awkwardly attempt to find more about the weather to say to one another. But here, we just chatted, paused to watch a little NHK, chatted some more. I was their first foreign guest (gaijin-san.. I think nobody who says that actually means it as an ironic insult). The house seemed full of various paintings. I thought about my grandfather, the artist.

I was more relaxed than I thought I might be, too. I sat for twenty minutes at a time with ten minute breaks in between. I refused to look at the work in progress. I looked around the studio. We chatted during breaks and a little bit during sitting. When it was finished, we had pasta and salad and whiskey and chicken, and it was all really good. I felt pretty at home still.

I thought the painting was really good. I think my real face is a bit rounder, and in the painting I look older or sadder or something.. maybe longer, or maybe I just don’t know what I look like from the side (er..). I wanted to take a photo of it, but I didn’t because I wasn’t sure of protocol. I figured I (or my parents) might buy it at some point.. and I was still (am still) hoping to maybe do it again. He didn’t seen quite satisfied with the painting, and I don’t know if that was just culturally the way you have to put down yourself and your stuff and your skills, or if it was the artist’s affliction wherein nothing is every quite right.

They gave me fifty bucks and then his wife drove me home. On the way, she mentioned that sometimes he gets mad at Newbie-sensei because he wants her to become a good teacher. It dawned on me that this makes total sense. Here I was, fearful that he hated me, when actually he was just getting mad sometimes because he gives a shit and wants us to be better. Because the students should get a good education and because.. because we just should keep trying to be better. I can really identify with someone who gets frustrated when other people aren’t better sometimes.

The result of the morning was that a painting was produced, the future of which is uncertain, but that it exists is really cool to me. And I like this teacher a lot more. I feel like I might really be part of this town (especially if my picture gets to hangin’ in the local pizza restaurant, and it might), and this staff, and I like to think we can ‘hang out’ with our co-workers. If I had a house or cooking skillz of any kind, I would invite them for dinner. Instead I just stopped tiptoeing around the staff room. I mean, ef it, I’m a person here too, right? Just a person.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

With the caveat that I may not actually know what I'm talking about

I was chatting with a friend recently, and we mentioned how as soon as the news broke about the earthquake, everyone back home immediately needed to know if we were okay.

“Geography, people,” he said with a shake of his head. Well.

Kind of. But who knows anything about Japanese geography, other than those of us with a really compelling reason to know? When I got posted to Hyogo, my friend Manderines said “Oh, that’s where Himeji Castle is.” “Oh, yeah,” I said, feigning understanding. I had no idea what Himeji Castle was, or where in Japan that might be. I’m sure I’d heard of it at some point, but nobody knows where anything is, unless it’s Tokyo, and maybe Okinawa, and Hokkaido on a good day.

It’s not just a question of geography. The news didn’t say “Massive earthquake strikes Tohoku region” (largely because no one would know what the hell that meant), it said “strikes Japan.”

Let's have that map again (I need it too, yes still; get off my back):
 Recently, by way of breaking my New Year’s Resolution not to add any more tasks or responsibilities to my list of crap I do in my free time, I’ve signed up a new e-mail account which I call “JET-information-gather” to a bunch of prefectural newletters. The aim was to collect info on various events going on around Japan in which JETs have some involvement, then digest the info into short lines for the reposted consumption of mostly JET alumni who want to have some vague notion of what JETs are doing these days.

I’d managed to sign on to two major regions, and then got hit with The End Of The School Year, so the only emails flooding that box come from those two sections of the country: Shikoku and Tohoku.

Shikoku is the island just below Hyogo, in the west half of Japan, and south. They were barely affected by the recent problems, although I think they experienced a very small tsunami surge on the eastern coast of Kochi prefecture.

Tohoku is the northern end of east Japan, where Iwate and Miyagi (also Fukushima – though the danger for Fukushima is now a bit more nuclear in nature) are among the prefectures suffering most intensely. The eastern side, and tip top Aomori, seems to be more or less intact. JETs there are doing things like cobbling together van runs into the deeply affected areas to pass out extra blankets, water, anything that Aomori can give. Japan has largely been transformed, it seems, into two distinct camps: those who need, and those who can give.

West Japan JETs are signing up for couchsurfing crisis Japan, inviting strangers, JETs from across the east side to sleep on their couches and floors and extra futon until they can get back. They’re participating in Man Up for Japan, the campaign to donate ichi-man (100,000) yen on payday to the earthquake relief. Most events planned in the west are going along according to plan, with the change that most events that were not fundraisers now are, and fundraisers for other countries are now being either partially or wholly directed toward earthquake relief. I have to decide very soon what to do about my own fundraiser, the spring Pepy bike ride from which all proceeds are earmarked for education in Cambodia.

…Yeah I know I said I would have nothing to report, but I guess I was misinformed about my own proclivities. I’m notoriously bad at following the news under normal circumstances. My TV is not even near the cable jack. I don’t read newspapers. I don’t read internet news either, really. The only reason I know anything is because my info-gather project is signed on to two regions, and because my personal account is connected to my embassy registry and my own prefecture’s listservs. And also facebook, and everyone’s walls. I get more email every day from the JET organization, from fellow JETs, and from the US embassy updating me on the news of the situation and commenting on news I haven’t heard.

 I want to caution you all that I’m not really an incredibly reliable source. No one is totally reliable. But I will tell you what I know. I realize that it’s scary; you’ve never seen my town, and you don’t know what might have changed. All you have is my word that the big deal today is that it snowed like 5in (wtf St. Patrick’s Day?) and the 6th graders are nervous because today is the day they go to the middle school to be shown around. This area was much more affected, I think, by the Hanshin-Awaji quake which laid the smackdown on Kobe about ten years ago.

Someone has mentioned that the US news might be sensationalizing just a bit with what happened or is happening. I’m not at all saying they’re making mountains out of molehills. What happened in Iwate and Miyagi was most definitely a mountain. More like a volcano (no wait, that’s down in Kyushu..). But here in my little cluster of molehills, I really am okay, and I really am checking my e-mail every forty seconds (when I’m online).

I don’t think the embassy or JET or my PAs or people have much reason to downplay the severity of things. They, like me, want to continue to conduct a safe and happy life. If they downplay, they’re just trying to reduce panic. If someone plays up, they’re trying to keep your attention. When getting news, always consider the source, and what they want from you. If they’re making it seem like I am in a totally dire situation, it’s likely that they don’t know you have a contact in Japan, and want to draw more attention to the situation in Tohoku so you’ll send money to Japan, which I support, or so you’ll keep watching their news. Everyone has a motive for what they say and don’t say; that’s not a bad thing, that’s just how it is. I know you all think I’m a minimalizer and maybe it’s so (like that time I totaled the car and called home to say I’d “had a bit of an accident”), but I’m responding partly in this case to my own judgement of the materials I’m getting and reading, and partly to the atmosphere around me. My coworkers are not worried, my bosses are not worried. So I’m not worried. Try not to worry. ^_^

Japan is on a huge fault line. It’s why we have so many mountains, and it’s why we have so many volcanoes and hot springs. Japan has to deal with earthquakes. I feel like they ought to know better than I do what they are doing when it comes to that. Being earthquake inept in Japan would be like living in the Midwest without a basement or fraidy-hole. Still, it’s unsettling sometimes when I look at the houses I pass each day out the bus window. None of those farmhouses or corner stores would hold up in a real shaker. I don’t know why more buildings are not built to a stronger code.

Well, yes I do. Some people don’t have the time, space, money, etc. to build for exigency. Some people live in the Midwest with weak walls and no basement because it’s better than no walls somewhere else. Or because they think they’ll only be there for a short time, and what are the odds?

On the upside, the construction on the new school building is supposed to be done this summer (whee! Newer is always better.. I used to think old meant it was tough enough to have lasted this long, but now I just think newer means better techniques and reinforced concrete!). 

Volunteering is still a no-go, because it’s still too big of a mess out there.

The other concern is the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Some radioactivity was in fact leaked, and the area surrounding the reactor is under close monitoring and advisory. I think something like a [edit in here: I thought it was 12 miles.. that is the radius from Japan's goverment; US citizens have been sent from 50] 50 mile radius of the plant has been evacuated or advised to stay indoors to avoid contamination. Beyond that, right now, we’re not affected. Or, I personally am not. Fukushima is kind of closer to the middle of the east coast of Japan. If they clear out the whole area (and I have no idea where they’ll put the rest of Tokyo, because God knows there isn’t even space IN THAT CITY for that city) I may have a houseguest in the form of college pal Sagramore. We’ll do a podcast from my little inaka home; it’ll be awesome.

Insofar as I want to make generalizations, I want to mention that from what I’ve heard, Japan is terrified of the nuclear. If I remember right, there was some resistance to nuclear power plants earlier on, which might have been easing as time goes on, memory and generational turnover being what it is. If Japanese officials are downplaying danger, and I don't want to think they would, this might be a reason. Also if they freak out more than necessary, this might be a reason. It goes both ways.

But as Sagramore pointed out, the mountains protect you. They do indeed; I’m lucky to be in the middle of nowhere-really.

As of now, I find the threat of aftershocks something to brace for (I'm actually making an kit! An incaseofshit kit) and the nuclear power plant a troubling thing. Mostly the plant. Fukushima is far away, but that is one thing that hasn't gotten any better... and has actually gotten worse since the weekend.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Because Sometimes You Are Wrong

So I mentioned that I spent the post-graduation drinking party trying to keep up with the art teacher. I misspoke; he's actually the math teacher who is an artist on the side. He's the teacher I sat next to last year, and we got along rather well. Then this year I suffered the painful delusion that he hated me for disrupting his class by making our English games too effing loud (they were pretty loud, but I was happy about this.. the class in question is normally that blank-faced staring type problem). When I say suffered, I really did. It bothered me a lot. I really want people to like me, especially people that seem interesting or cool, or whom I respect. I used to tiptoe around and avoid looking at him or getting in his way. My cabinet of extra crap is behind his desk (my old desk location), so I would actually wait until he left the office to go and get stuff out of there.

Because I didn't want to feel the burning wrath of him hating on me, of him judging the fact that I wasn't a "real" part of this school, or that I wasn't good to the Mice class, or that I didn't work as hard as the other teachers... all of which are kind of true and are serious insecurities I have had about my job. The Mice class has been a thorn in my English-speaking side since day one, specifically because of their silence and lack of motivation. For this reason, I was always a lot more likely to hang out with the other kids whenever I had the chance. I didn't go after the Mice.. in some ways I let them go, because the Cats and Frogs actually appreciated me. A little. But what I should have done, were I a more dedicated person, would have been to reach out to them more, and work harder for them and with them.

And why are we paying so much to have these western youngsters sit around studying kanji and blogging all day?!

Anyway. After a while I knew I must be imagining things, but I went right on imagining them until the last drinking party when I sat across from him and in my whiskey, confessed that I thought he didn't like me! I also asked about the girl in all the new paintings at the pizza place, because there are a bunch of the same girl, and last time I was at the pizza place, we speculated as to who she might be, and what significance.

So I was happily reassured after his insistence that he doesn't in fact hate me. He said I should visit his house and that his wife makes a mean pasta. Sometimes your paranoia is all in your head.

On the Monday after a drinking party, usually no one speaks about anything that was done or said.. it's like enkai exist in a parallel universe, or in Vegas. Everything just stays there. My memory had begun to function as such. I was totally caught off guard when Monday morning rolled around and he clapped me on the shoulder with a comment about my drinking strength. I blinked, then laughed with a grave "I lost."

Later, though he stopped by my desk to ask a question that was really gratifying. He asked if I would sit as a model. And I mean, I know it's kind of because I am foreign and I have interesting features that are probably fun to try to capture, but I've never had anyone ask if I would sit and be the subject of scrutiny, and I'm vain enough to be really happy along with nervous. I am always curious about how others see me, and how it differs from what I see. The girl in the paintings at the pizza place has a sort of serious, sometimes almost creepily intense look to her. I wonder if that's his style of painting, or if it's something of her personality he's getting. I wonder how I'll turn out. It'll be Monday kind of all morning, and then we'll all have lunch (pasta) after the session. So once that happens, I'll let you know how it went.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It's warmer, the sky clouds over and clears, and clouds again. The kids are extra cute today, and there's cafe au lait in the second tea dispenser. You can see people weeding their gardens out the higher windows. For some reason the entire school smells like clean laundry.

There are many reasons to have stayed, and these are a few of them.

Monday, March 14, 2011


This link, to google crisis response, is looking extremely useful.

You can look there for updates, as well as donate. The east half of Japan is looking at three-hour intervals of blackouts as they take turns using power.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I posted my last entry to the web at about the time a massive earthquake was shaking eastern Japan. A friend of mine who lives in Tokyo and I had been exchanging messages about plans for the upcoming three day weekend (I was trying to convince him to visit beautiful nature-filled Hyogo), and he added as a little addendum to one "Big ass earthquake just now btw" at 3:05 pm (my time). I hadn't felt anything and almost didn't give it much thought.

A little while later, I messaged a few friends in Yamasaki, to ask if they'd felt anything. My fear actually jumped to my apartment, because sometimes it's snowin' in Ichi and springlike in Yama. I hadn't cut off the gas supply to the water heater or anything and I wanted to make sure stuff wasn't going down at home.

I live in West Japan. The Kansai region was largely undisturbed, from what I heard.
But nobody had felt anything. I looked it up on google news, finding one article about a megaquake shaking Tokyo. But we were too far to feel that, and about halfway between the north and south coasts. Someone said the TV was on at their school, and not too long after, commotion started in mine. We turned on the TV.

It took a moment to realize what we were seeing. It was apparently a live helicopter feed. A corner figure of Japan flashed giant red patches over sections of the map. The teacher behind me said, "What is that, a river?" Not a river, the ocean, come too far in, and far too fast.

The aerial we were seeing happened at that point to be Sendai. Relentless water pushed fire and debris and boats and houses, sweeping across rice fields. I kept thinking something would stop the motion, slow the movement of the sweep, there, a river, when the water hits the river, it'll just go downriver and be a big river. But the tsunami that pushed houses into rivers pushed them right back out of those rivers the next second. It didn't stop, and didn't seem to slow down.

Teachers started texting family and friends, calling them on cell phones and asking in low serious voices if everything was alright. I guess it was.

All of this was right about my bus time, so I haplessly shoved my stuff into my bags and headed down to the bus stop, wondering what it all meant. I texted my Tokyo friend, and resisted texting my Okinawa acquaintance as I figured she'd be swamped with "Are you OK?" messages, since Okinawa was flashing all red (along with Hokkaido, and basically the entire eastern coast, and most southern coasts other than those protected, like us, by other large islands and peninsulae).

This is for the 12th, but it's the type of map we were seeing.

Then... we carried on as usual. We'd just had graduation, and we were worn out from that, everybody cried. I wanted a nap before the dinner/drinking party and got half of one before my co-teacher came to get me and take me to enkai. I wasn't sure how to be, what attitude to assume, whether to be quiet or solemn, but things were progressing as totally normal in my little town, so we ate chicken and soybeans and I got "a little bit whiskey" trying to keep up with the art teacher in drinking (I lost). We all gave speeches about how moving graduation had been, and then the party ended and everyone went home.

Or, rather, I went to karaoke to join the others who had just finished their enkai, and I was so whiskey by then I didn't order a single drink at karaoke. I sang loudly and pretty badly, and fielded worried text messages. We stopped for snacks at Gusto on the way home. Still a bit whiskey, I got online and posted to facebook again, just to let everyone know I really was still in touch, and then I went to bed at 2. Embarrassingly, it was a really fun weekend night.

People asked me to keep them updated, but I had nothing to report. Nothing changed in my town, nothing happened here this time (we had flash floods shortly after my arrival, but that was from a typhoon).

I'd had plans to go to Nara the following day for the Omizutori festival, which you can see a bit more about here and here.

I had no real reason to cancel those plans, especially since it seemed good to go to a religious festival in the very-old capital. The festival was still on, I had bookings at a hostel, and my traveling friend was still up for it. So we went, and it took forever to get to Nara (it just always does), and we hung around and attended the last bit of the fire part of the festival (saw the last torch or two), and then meditated in the hall and hung around until 2, when the sacred water was drawn, made it back to our respective overnight places by 3 (I counted seven pairs of shoes in the genkan, making me the last to return for the night) and went to sleep.

This morning, I got up a bit after 9 and went to have breakfast. There was a free piece of toast per person, along with coffee and tea. I had the odd status of being a lone traveler at this place, and I also talked to the proprietor in Japanese. I didn't really know he knew English until I heard someone else talk to him. It's literally the smallest hostel in Nara, and we were all in the common room, me getting breakfast, the proprietor sitting at the table watching TV, one (English? Australian?) guy doing sudoku at the table, and one guy sitting with headphones and a laptop on the floor by the TV. Another guy was in and out of the sleeping room where the computer also was.

The proprietor asked me about Omizutori and I answered in English. Then I couldn't stop staring at the TV. It's all they are talking about, of course, and showing. The map of Japan was still there and flashing yellow now. It took me a while to realize it meant that those areas were still under tsunami warning, "but just a little one," the hostel guy explained to me when I asked in surprise.

There were interviews with people (some who knew their families were safe, others who did not), pans of the wreckage, before and after shots, aerial footage from all over Japan, charts showing numbers by prefecture of the missing and the dead. It was horrifying. I was transfixed. The guy on the laptop burst out laughing, in his own little world and I wanted to kick him, then felt bad for being in my own little world just like that.

Because much like my readership, I didn't feel it, I only heard about it, I only worried about the people I knew or had met who lived in east Japan. I only saw what they showed on TV (which was unbelievably amazing in a terrible way). Then when I walked by the station, I threw my change into a box held by some high school students who had turned out in droves to chant please and thank you to passers-by. I saw a poster and made a mental note to give blood soon. Because in my mind, that's what it takes when disaster strikes, money and blood, and you give what you can of both. The other thing I hear we are giving is power. Kansai electric has asked people to be super conservative with electricity as we re-route some of our supply to the Tohoku region (the top part). I don't really know if everyone is okay. I don't know that knowing would help me.

On the bus home, I started thinking about what I could do. Part of me wanted to raise my hand and get on a bus (once they start organizing buses, as they likely will) to Tohoku to volunteer to help with cleanup the way high schools in Kobe sent their kids here to help haul away the mud and debris after our floods. Another part of me suggests that that kind of maneuver would not be in line with all the recent injunctions to stay safe.

Can you stay safe just by staying put? Apparently not entirely, not when the earth moves and the sea leaves its bed.

But what I did want to do was make a request to all my friends and family, to anyone who was glad to hear it wasn't Shiso and it wasn't me: please donate $2 to the Japan effort. You can do it any way you like.. I'm sure collections will be happening around you soon, and if not, collect some yourself and send it to me. I think the exchange right now is like 83 yen for a dollar, but I'll round every one to a hundred yen (they have direct deposit bank numbers on NHK, and you can give directly at kiosks in convenience stores). And give blood if you are eligible (this is always a need, but in times of any major disaster, the need increases). Thank you all who thought about me, and trust me, I'm just as glad as you that my evening was about graduation speeches and beer, not mud and broken beams.

I'll keep you updated, such as I can, but once again, what I know just comes from about the same sources as what you know. Stay safe, everyone.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I'm thinking today about the future.

It's graduation day. I hate them. I forgot that I hate them. They're never quite what I want them to be. I mean, I went, and we sang, and I cried, and it was poignant. But it was also like stay-awake-challenge 2011, and not only for me, when the speakers got up to say their pieces. Maybe it's because their speeches are all in some level of Japanese I don't really understand. But they were the ones who looked bored when the kids started singing badly, and when the class VP started to give an account of their memories, her voice broken by little sobs.

I had come to terms with the idea that it's not really for the graduates that we put them through all this crap. It's for us, the teachers and parents. It's so we can wallow in the weird feeling of imagining them taking flight, of how happy we are and how sad, that we maybe taught them something, that they needed us, that they don't anymore.

But for me, I love their faces as they march out into the swirling snow (yeah, snow) through the back doors of the gym. Tearstained and squared jaw, they go forward; they have no other choice. The future is there, and they'll go into it. They couldn't stay behind if they wanted to. Not that they want to.. some are glad to get out, and some are glad to go wherever they are going. Some are sad to be leaving, some are scared of where they're headed, or of not knowing where they're headed. And some are all of the above.

But scared or sad or happy or excited, we go, because for all the points of the compass, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure (that isTom Stoppard).

But something else. Before the graduates came into the gym, while I was wandering around trying to keep warm, I stopped and smiled and chatted and joked with the younger students. The first-years squabbled over who was number one, two, or three coolest. The second-years called me beautiful. Then during the ceremony, next year's student body president started crying during his speech, and continued to cry through the rest of the ceremony (I didn't know this til I saw him, red-eyed, at the end).

I remembered the phrase just a judo kid, and choked on it watching the irrepressible Minato deliver his ceremonial paper to the stage. He was never just anything. Now our new class president is just a table-tennis kid, but he has a good heart, and he's sharp, and he has a steady voice. And he cried through the whole ceremony!

At the risk of sounding like a horrible person, I like working with kids whom I've seen cry. I actually have more respect for the kids I've seen moved that much, because it means they give a shit. I like kids who give a shit. The future is brighter for them.

I've been thinking lately about the future, about education and how we're all in this together. About how we need kids to give a shit, and to learn about things, even if they don't think they want to, because the future needs better people. I hear about how this country has a growing population and that one has a shrinking one, but I feel like what we need is not more people (oh hey massive population jump in the last several centuries and the fact that our resources and infrastructure may not be able to keep up at that rate), just better ones.

The world needs people who are smart, sure, but more than that, the world needs people who give a shit. The other day, an acquaintance said "Stupid scares me, because I am afraid it's winning." Sometimes it does seem like stupid is winning, but I have hope. And it's kids like next year's class president that give it to me.

And who make losing last year's class president bearable.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Trifecta of Sore

"Wait'll you see my ass bruise!" I enthused. I like the sound of "ass-bruise." It sounds kind of like "ass groove," which is a Simpsons quote.

But after my weekend, I'm covered in bruises and my muscles are sore.

I'm baaack!

I went to Shorinji Kempo Thursday night to give it my all one last time before the test Friday night. Then I went skiing Saturday afternoon. Yes, but I like to think my insanity is the good kind!

In the same way that I forget who I am if I haven't sweated through a t-shirt in recent memory, I also feel a little more badass with a small collection of bruises to prove it.

Thursday, actually, was the hardest on me. I really did everything at 100%. I also "fought" with Sensei, and the thing about that is.. I don't have bruises from where he got through my (HAH) guard and hit me.. I have bruises where I tried to, for example, kick him, and he blocked it.

I used to think that things like him happening to hit my funnybone when blocking my attacks was.. like, maybe a coincidence. Now I think, he's just really effing good.

But the one I got for trying to front kick him turned into a slightly swollen little knot on my right shin, and looks a bit like an eye in coloration.

The testing itself was not so bad. Not when you're recalling six nerve-wracking hours and you only get one. But the lead-in to the test, now that was something straight out of a dream.

The test was in Himeji, which means an hour drive. This is an hour if you know exactly where you are going and traffic is decent. A sane person would leave an extra fifteen minutes. I intended to leave forty extra minutes. That, of course, ended up not working out so well... I left at 5:41 for a 7pm test (my shirt wasn't dry, etc). But then I got 15 minutes down the road and realized I'd forgotten my white belt in my apartment, so I turned around and went to get it. I was sweating it out all the way down 29, trying to breathe slowly because we could all only go as fast as that truck up ahead. Miraculously, all the lights were green. Seriously, all of them.

Once I got on the bypass I could pass the beast (whew) but I was still cutting it close even if I knew exactly where to go, which I did not. Although when the Shorinji people asked me if I knew where to go, I said I did. I mean, I had been to the Himeji Budokan once. A year and a half ago. In daylight. Oh and we were late that time, because we got lost. Ding! But I was planning to have a lot of extra time to find it. Good good.

I miraculously (see this post about my Shishi-imitatin' protector) parked in budokan parking, then ran across the street to a building I thought might be the budokan and it was not the budokan. It was 6:54. I called the only person in Kempo who speaks English, the only person whose number I even have. I realized that even if the building I had run to had been the budokan, my uniform was still in the car.

I ran back to the car. Tore off my outer clothes and pulled the uniform on. I looked up the hill and the large mysterious building looming over me and knew that IT was the BUDOKAN. 6:58. I ran up the hill on the street, veering right. I went farther up the hill. No door. God, where was the front door?!

View Flight to the Budokan in a larger map

Finally I found it just as my contact was calling me back. Sensei was waiting in the lobby. "So, you didn't know where it was?" he asked. I wanted to plant my face in the wooden flooring. I went into the test and everyone was meditating, so I sat down with them and then we did all the preliminary stuff, state your name, get your pencil--

Get your pencil?? Of course. For the WRITTEN part of the test. Yes you can write in English. But the questions are all in Japanese. Ready go.

I have no idea why I felt okay about all of this. But I did. The actual physical part of the test was so short I almost felt like I didn't get to show how hard I'd worked to get there.

I drove home feeling really really good about life (God only knows why that was!).

So that's why I felt like it would be fun to go skiing the next day. And it was! I rented short skis this time, which I rather enjoyed.

I'd been skiing (for the second time in my life) two weeks before. There is a decent ski park about an hour from my house. I was happy because falling while skiing is okay, it's just snow! On the first run down the mountain, I fell hard right on my ski pole grip. Have you ever bruised your ass so bad it formed a knot?

I enjoyed my public bathing experiences with my friends these last couple weekends (one at the hotel in Osaka, one after skiing this week) because I'll admit it.. the only upside to having such a bruise is showing it to people, and you don't get much opportunity for that. I felt wrong taking photos of it, and so did not.. it's way past its scariest coloring by now anyway and no longer hurts at all.

Skiing made me sore two weeks ago because I only knew how to move forward by pulling myself along with the poles. This week I did not have poles so I had to skate along the snow.

But overall, upper body, lower, everything is pretty much just sore as fuck.

And now you know why!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Winter Vacation: Kuala Lumpur

The last stop!

We got ourselves to KLCC, the Petronas Towers where Anis met us after a little searching. She took us home to drop our stuff off and get ready for dinner. We met her boyfriend and went out for some traditional on-banana-leaf Malaysian food which we ate by hand (not with utensils). Dinner in Mayalsia is often a more into-the-night time affair. We weren't even there until almost ten!

After a sumptuous meal, we went home to play with her pet iguana and chat until bedtime.

The next morning, we slept way longer than 8 hours. I woke baffled to blazing sunshine. We got dressed and heaed out for breakfast.. er.. lunch? We went to Old Town coffee which, like most restaurants, was half outside veranda porch. Miriam and I told Anis stories of Shiso life, and Anis and I told Miriam stories of Vanderbilt life. It was a pretty sweet way to start the day.

Since it was late in our trip, Miriam and I were totally ready to kick back and let Anis lead us. I did, however, want to find this one temple I'd read about in the guidebook, so we set off for Thean Hou Temple, which was not as easy to find (or get to) as we thought it would be. It was kinda nice, though, to take a long walk (er.. sometimes hike uphill) with friends through the humid hot.

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

The temple was cool, though not as massive as Kek Lok Si; there was a turtle sanctuary in back. After exploring a bit, we went back to town to do a little shopping.

Miriam and I had been putting off making purchases for ourselves, but in the Little India of KL, we bought saris and I snagged a complement of jewelry to go with it.

We let Anis and Lee choose where to take us for our last dinner in KL, and they chose (full circle?) a restaurant which claimed to deliver Penang cuisine. We also let them order, so we got one last round of unfamilar foods. Everything was interesting and flavorful!

We went back to her place to pack up and prepare for our last day and then eventual departure. Since our flight was later in the afternoon, we were able to go visit the Batu Caves and Cave Temple in the morning. This was a temple not in Chinese style like the others we'd been visiting, but a Hindu temple instead!

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

We climbed the steps amid the faithful, some of whom walked up barefoot, others carrying offering items, jars or flowers or fruit, and a few people even had bit stalks of what I think was sugarcane. The task was hard enough without carrying anything! The Batu Caves are most famous for the festival of Thaipusam, in which devotees pierce their body to show gratitude for prayers granted, or to implore the aid of Murugan (the god of this temple). This festival is around February, so we missed out, but we also missed the crowds!

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

Near the temple entrance, there was a guy who would take your picture with a snake or large iguana for a small fee. I wasn't too big on the idea (not because I'm afraid of snakes, but because on this trip I had started to become more aware of what I did by spending my money where I did.. that is, what I was supporting), but Miriam jumped for it, so we did. Anis manned the camera and we got a few good shots.

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

The caves themselves were pretty cool, and the mischevious monkeys who lived there liked to try stealing the devotional flowers and things of devotees. I am shy in working temples, less so now in Japanese things with which I have more experience, but I really do not want to do something rude in someone's holy place, and my ignorance makes that a lot more likely in foreign countries!

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

 But for what little I know, I do like the Hindu gods. I have a little Ganesha statue of my own. Small shrines were to be found here and there in the cave walls, and bright colors everywhere. I love the brightness of Indian traditional dress. Some devotees had shaved heads, painted gold. It was really cool, overall.

From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

Before we descended, a man near the snake table who had greeted us earlier asked if we'd like a little blessing. I was, as I mentioned, shy, but he said it was alright. The  I like it when people want to share stuff like that, and since I am a fan of blessings, I decided to give a little donation and get one. Miriam couldn't have the powders applied to her forehead because of skin allergies!

It was the guy over there in orange.
From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

We climbed back down, bought some Indian snacks and sweets, and headed back to grab our things and head to the airport.

I really enjoyed hanging out with Anis and exploring a few new types of temples. Eating and shopping were of course lovely too. I hope to go see her again sometime soon... she suggested we go to the island side of Malaysia (sounds like she's up for a real rainforesty adventure!), although I kind of liked the easy pace of life just kicking it in KL.

Ah, this.
From Winter Vacation Part IV: Kluang to KL

After another (argh) 7 hour flight, we were back in Tokyo, greeted by a giant poster of Arashi. We retrieved our cold-weather clothes (I really did like the bag-check guy at Haneda ^_^), exchanged our money, and crashed at our Tokyo hotel, bemoaning the freezing wind the whole way. It took basically all of the following day to get back home, but there we were, at the end of a great winter vacation.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Yaritai!" said the short ones

I just got done with the small elementary class of 1st  ("sheep") and 2nd (horses) graders (epithets based solely on their Chinese zodiac animals). They are consistently one of my best groups, and I am not even sure why. They’re like, thirsty for knowledge.. when they connect the dots to make a picture in the numbers game, they want to know the English name of the animal they’ve outlined so they can write it on the paper at the top (I just realized that this is a big deal when I saw that the 3rd grade has only just begun to learn romaji, writing with roman letters). They want to study.. they play the study games hard, and really do remember a lot.

I mean, maybe it’s that I tried to teach the older kids more stuff, and thus they learned each thing less well, but the youngest group here has numbers nailed to the wall more than anyone. They could count to a hundred before the 4th grade… well, the 4th grade is up around like 50 as of today. They see the fly swatters sticking out of my bag and insist that they wanna do that!

The fly swatters are for board karuta. Basically, first the kids have to get the ABCs on the board in order (at which this group is A-number-one champ, of course). This is generally done with a lot of shouting, because everyone will be holding one or two letters. So the kids will get ready, and I say “go!” and start the timer (usually I only time older kids.. but once again…).. they all scream “A!” like their lives hang in the balance, then start yelling the name of whatever kid is holding A, in case he/she doesn’t know already. This progresses through the alphabet in one minute and 44 seconds. (Today I had them match the lowercase letters too. This took 1 minute and 42 seconds.)

Once the letters are on the board, we can play with the fly swatters. Initially, I had taught them a bunch of words, one for each letter. Like APPLE and BAG and CAT, etc. Today we had gone over animals, weird ones too, so I kicked it off with “starfish!” The hope was that eventually they would associate the sound with the letter, rather than just that one word.. so I used the associated words for board karuta for a while, then occasionally would throw in other words that started with those letters. 

They cleared the whole board today; I was calling words I don’t think even their teachers have ever heard. I couldn’t think of anything for A but “anteater” at the time. V was “vixen.” But I think they’ve learned the sound idea. Hell yes, first and second graders.

The thing that impresses me most, and also probably works so well, is the way they fling themselves so wholeheartedly at everything I present. I don’t even really have to try that hard to entertain them. Anything will be fun. And anything will be absorbed, too. They’re like a little army of 14 sponges.

I mean, I’m fully aware that they’re not all the same. The “YARITAI!” engine is driven by a few key second graders, and there are some who are still blanking totally on English Ball (we throw a ball around and they say one English word before passing it to someone else), and I do hear a few mooouuu wakaran!s from time to time. But the energy and sheer knowledge of the class is staggering, especially for a group I hardly thought too much of while trying to plan.

What I mean by that is, I designed 5th and 6th grade lessons to be efficient and as effective as possible. To learn what I wanted them to learn, or what the curriculum had in store. But I planned downward, and by the time I got to the youngest of them, I was like “well I’m already bringing numbers cards, maybe we can play some kind of number game…” and sometimes I went so far in numb-minded I’ve-been-planning-under-duress to simply write “Number game, 15 minutes” and leave the details for future EmLem to handle.

Lucky for me, everything with this class is a pretty big hit. Though, they’re the only ones who’ve run me to the end of a plan (repeatedly) and had me blinking at the clock on which was left 15 more minutes of classtime. I’ve wised up a bit.. I now just keep a bagful of tricks, and if all else fails, there’s always ABC board.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

a chance to catch your breath and calm your nerves

I attended the Chinese New Year celebration in Kobe’s Chinatown about a month ago. There was a list of performances and events, and I heck, I enjoy a good nikuman as much as a bit more than the next guy, not to mention the fact that I'm pretty taken with calendars and season changes and measurements and all that.

This year's lunar new year actually coincided with the Japanese celebration Setsubun, which is what I call "halfway back." This is when the sun is halfway back from the solstice in the direction of equinox. So basically, a holiday based on solar calendar lined up with a holiday based on the lunar calendar. I think that's pretty cool, and maybe like a good omen or something.

Lion Dance, Jan. 30th 2011
From 2011_01_30

There were events in Kobe on the Sunday before the 3rd, as well as all weekend following. I went to the "dragon and lion" parades on the early Sunday. It was a cold day, and snow started to fall halfway through the dance. I have a particular connection to the lions, because I think they are shishi. 

They also had blinking eyes and spent some time munching on the crowd by way of bestowing good luck!
From 2011_01_30

I may have written of this before, but they resemble a creature that visited me a in a dream more than ten years ago (before I knew anything about them, really). I later read about the imagery of Shishi and found it to be really close to the behavior of the one in my dream.

From 2011_02_05

Shishi generally appear in pairs at the gates of things. They are related to the Shisa of Okinawa, but end up a little different in appearance. Shisa pairs will have one with an open mouth (a) and one with a closed mouth (m). Shishi pairs will have different things under their paws. The female (I think.. this is just coming from memory) will have a cub under her foot, while the male will have a ball. The underfoot cub is not being crushed or killed, but rather pushed, that it will become stronger. The Shishi is a rough parent but a fierce protector; in my dream, she threw me against a stone shrine wall, insisted she was "just fuckin' with ya," and promised to look after me for good. I like seeing Shishi and Shisa alike because they're pretty cool symbols.

From 2011_01_30
From 2011_01_30

One of the luckiest icons, though, is the dragon. Dragons are often seen paired with phoenixes in royal iconography. I saw two different dragons parade in the Motomachi area of Kobe on that Sunday (the 30th of January).

From 2011_01_30

On the following Saturday, Nankinmachi (Kobe's Chinatown) was totally packed. I managed to find my friends eventually, and after watching some acrobatics from afar (which, by the way, were astonishing.. this blue-spandex-clad guy did not so much as tremble while he slowly lifted his body through all manner of contortions high above the crowd on stacked wooden chairs!), we decided to get out of the cold and have a drink and a snack. Snacks on the street are excellent in Nankinmachi, but they only warm your hands for the thirty seconds it takes to consume them.

From 2011_02_05

Along the way, we passed a little tent where people were lined up to go offer prayers or wishes and light large sticks of incense (joss sticks) and be greeted by creepily made-up pigs and other characters. I made up my mind instantly that I wanted to do it, and once we had hung out in a pub for a while, I started to proclaim that we should all "get blest!" .. eventually we left in time to see the dragon dance, but I got separated from the group and ended up the only one in line. The others went on to get good seats for viewing the dragon dance.

I waited a little in line, and then when it was my turn, I went up to make my wish(?) and get my picture taken with the brightly clad attendants. I handed my camera to the camera guy and went up to the little temporary shrine. After I had bowed and concentrated on my intentions, I turned to get my photo snapped so I could put the incense in the burner area and go find my friends. But they held me back. Wait a moment, the dragon has to come through.

Can you find our heroine in this picture?
From 2011_02_05

Logistically, the way it was set up, the backstage area was behind the little pagoda-con-shrine, and the stage was right in front of it. People going onstage have to pass the entrance of the shrine. So the dragon was coming through. I was quite pleased. It also happened to be a familiar dragonly face that appeared for this. Double awesome. I signalled the guy holding my camera to take pictures of what was happening, and the dragon dance began.

From 2011_02_05

But that dragon didn't just pass by the entrance of the shrine. It stopped in front of it. Then put its head in there with me. Twice. I had no idea that was going to happen, and I could not have orchestrated that had I tried, but basically I got blessed by a Chinese dragon at the New Year celebration. I think it's a pretty good omen, don't you?

From 2011_02_05

I received an astrology guide to this year from one of my adult students. It's all in Japanese, so I can't really understand most of it, but I did eventually find that according to that, too, it's supposed to be a very good year for me.

It's the year of the Rabbit, the Yin Metal Rabbit to be exact. From what I've heard, rabbit years are always kind of chances to catch your breath after the hectic intensity of the Tiger (but, I guess, before the Dragon which follows?). I thought this was great because even before I knew this, I had made decisions about 2011 that led in this direction. My New Year's Resolution not to do less, but to at least not do more is part of it. I chose to stay in Japan and just plod along for another year, because honestly, the amount of adventure I have and have had lately is enough. I'd become tired of worrying about the future and just wanted to hang out, watch the snow, learn more Japanese, get better at Shorinji, get better at my job, publish more Hyogo Times, and take more calls on PSG. I wanted, this year, to get a handle on all the things I have going on, without needing to go bigger or better.

So if it's a memorable year, if it's an exceptional year, it'll be the little things, maybe. I don't see it as a year of big glittery changes or explosive joys. I see it more like the quiet happiness of having cleaned out the closet. Even when you can't see it, it's satisfying to know it's clean, and that you did it.

Metal sounds a bit sharp and tangy.. but yin is the softer side, the darker side, the restful side. So maybe "relax" is the tall order of the year, and maybe I've gotten a whole lot of good omens suggesting that, despite the difficulty of really doing that, I might just get myself there this year.

The whole move back to America and start a new life (aaagain) thing can wait for the strength of the Yang Water Dragon..!